Ann Peebles (Retrospective)
Daddy B. Nice's #2 ranked Southern Soul Forerunner
"I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down"
Ann Peebles (Retrospective)
Daddy B. Nice's Original Critique:
Listen to Ann Peebles singing "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" on YouTube.
Possibly the most delicious two-plus minutes of soul ever recorded, Ann Peebles' "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" is so little known outside the South that it sounds fresh today, more than thirty years after it was recorded. It was such a crucial mile-marker in my own conversion to Southern Soul that I can remember the exact details: driving across a causeway on the Louisiana Gulf coast, the sun twinkling over the water, the land a pencil-thin line in the distance, with the deejay on the radio intoning, ". . . Covering Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. . . "
Then came Ann Peebles' voice:
"You think you've got it all set up.
You think you've got the perfect plan.
To charm every girl you see.
And play with everyone that you can."
The vocal, nuanced yet light, swung with a bluesy gait across a pop/soul hybrid background.
"But I've got news for you.
I hope it won't hit you too hard.
One of these days, while you're at play,
I'm going to catch you off guard."
It sounded like the most quintessentially soulful Top 40 record I'd ever heard.
"I'm going to tear your playhouse down.
I'm gonna tear your playhouse down.
Room by room."
It's ironic that when it came out, "Playhouse" was obscured by the huge shadow of Aretha Franklin, whose tunes were on the downside of the peak reached with "Respect" and her mid-sixties masterpieces, yet now it's "Respect" that sounds dated--tied to a time and a place--while Ann Peebles' restrained but seething notice to a cheating man ("I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down") sounds timeless.
Like Johnnie Taylor, whose hit "Disco Lady" stuck to him like a tar baby for the rest of his career, Ann Peebles had the regrettable luck to have a hit, "I Can't Stand The Rain," that locked her into a kind of caricature of a ravaged, bitter, dead-end Aretha Franklin--a performer, in other words, lionized by the hip and decadent, but an artist considered somehow too cultish for the mainstream.
That is not, of course, the consensus opinion on "I Can't Stand The Rain", which has been routinely characterized as "the greatest R&B record ever" by luminaries as lofty as the late John Lennon, whose solo single "Mother" cloned "I Can't Stand The Rain" (and ended up sounding just as ravaged, bitter and dead-end). Your Daddy B. Nice's take on "I Can't Stand The Rain" is this: If torturous self-analysis interests you, why not get it first-hand, without the maudlin self-paralysis, in Syl Johnson's "Is It Because I'm Black," and spend some time listening to other overlooked Peebles' classics?
Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot added to "Rain's" burden of hype with her popular hiphop version. Minimalist, monotonous, Elliot's "Rain" (and its glossy video) nevertheless hypnotized fans with its technically-fantastic arrangement by one of contemporary R&B's finest producers, Timbaland. But the nursery-rhyme simplicity of the Timbaland arrangement and the acapella, Chinese-water-torture repetitiveness of the Elliot vocal--once imbedded in the brain--were impossible to remove. It stressed the weird emotional paralysis of the original but salvaged none of the bluesy, chugging groove that made the Peebles-Mitchell version so potent.
Peebles' "Rain" had that great rhythm section and the entire Hi studio band--Howard Grimes, the Hodges brothers Mabon, Leroy and Charlie, aided by hornmen Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson--to make it interesting, to give it texture. For a glorious time in the early 70's, this group of musicians birthed rhythm-and-blues mini-masterpieces with casual ease, not just "Rain" but "Playhouse," "Trouble, Heartaches and Sadness," "99 Pounds," "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" and "Come To Mama," not to mention the hits of Al Green.
"You think love is just fun and games,
Trying to be a playboy.
All you do is run around.
Using hearts for playing toys."
The second minute of "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" comes with a single, captivating bridge, rendered with extraordinary economy and an exquisite sense of soul by the Hi musicians. The arrangement is almost anthem-like, and Peebles' vocal on the second and only other stanza trills like a tattered flag blowing in the wind.
"You've been playing daddy,
With every mama around.
Whatcha gonna say when you look up one day,
See your playhouse coming down?"
Peebles' vocal performance in "Playhouse" represents the antithesis of melisma, the alternative to everything slick and ornate that so-called "urban" or "smooth" R&B has become today. Peebles sings the hell out of "Playhouse," but she doesn't use the song as a springboard for verbal gymnastics.
"Melisma," for those who don't follow musical terminology, refers to the act of taking one syllable and stretching it out for several notes. The contemporary queen of this technique is the multi-platinum recording artist Mariah Carey. The bathetic side of Whitney Houston's catalog ("I Will Always Love You," etc.) is the template.
If this is what you're after, you don't need Southern Soul, and you won't like Ann Peebles. But if you're ready to trade in all that bathos for heartfelt blues with rhythm to burn, "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" delivers.
Ann Peebles filled her music with an elegance and straightforwardness that blues divas have been trying to emulate ever since. And make no mistake. Peebles possessed the poise, composure and poetry of movement of a fabled African queen--a regality we associate now, perhaps, with Erykah Badu, or in the past with Lena Horne or Nina Simone.
Her persona has been captured on film in a documentary called "Only The Strong Survive," which focuses on Jerry Butler (of the title) and other R&B "survivors." In the film Ann Peebles renders a scorching, live version of "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" that greatly improves on the familiar recorded track.
Others may wonder, "Well, what about Aretha Franklin? Wasn't she a much more important artist?" Peebles can sound like Aretha, whose best material was already laid down before her arrival on the scene. Check out "I Needed Somebody (Bright Lights, Big City)" or one of Peebles' covers of Aretha's material. However, Peebles' singing owed as much or more to Diana Ross, the era's other great anti-melismatic singer, as it did to Franklin.
And in terms of influence upon the younger generation of Southern Soul singers--artists like Jackie Neal, Toni Green, Vickie Baker and Syleena Johnson--the legacy of Peebles is without peer. Need proof? Of the female performers on your Daddy B. Nice's Top 100 Southern Soul chart, none comes to mind with a direct connection to Aretha Franklin by way of her songs. This comparison, of course, doesn't mean Aretha is any less of a superstar of modern R&B.
However, only a partial list of the connections to Ann Peebles' songs includes:
"Come To Mama" by Vickie Baker. A cover of the Peebles song. (DBN's #53-rated artist and song on the Top 100 Southern Soul chart).
"She's Got The License (I Got The Man)" by An-jay, I Understand Daddy, Mardi Gras, 02 (DBN's #62-ranked Southern Soul artist and song).
"You've Got The Papers (I've Got The Man)" by Toni Green, Mixed Emotions, 98 (DBN's #47-ranked Southern Soul artist).
The above two songs are variations on "You've Got The Papers (I've Got The Man)" by Ann Peebles from her Handwriting On The Wall CD, 1979--also written by Earl Randle, the author of "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down."
"That's The Way We Roll" by Jackie Neal (DBN's #34-ranked Southern Soul artist). The late Jackie Neal's ode to her family ("With the Neal family, it's all about love. . . I had my brothers and sisters with me/ Because that's the way my mama wanted it to be.") harks back to Peebles' "St. Louis Woman (With A Memphis Melody)," with its family-upbringing ambience: "I was born in Missouri/That's where my journey began/ Singing in ----- County/ With my family and my friends."
"Tear Your Playhouse Down" by Pat Brown, Equal Opportunity, is an uptempo, extended version of the Peebles classic. Pat Brown is the #22-ranked artist on The Top 100 chart.
"99 Pounds," by Betty Padgett, 2006. Recently released, this song is just the latest cover of the raunchy Peebles rocker, one of the most powerful blues in the Southern Soul catalog.
These recordings testify to the primordial pull of Peebles' material on contemporary Southern Soul.
--Daddy B. Nice
About Ann Peebles (Retrospective)
Ann Peebles was born in 1947 in East St. Louis, Missouri. Like her fellow St. Louisian, Barbara Carr, Peebles grew up immersed in gospel and as a teenager fell under the influence of local R&B bandleader Oliver Sain. In 1968, on a trip to Memphis, Hi Records' head Willie Mitchell (who himself was just beginning to transform Hi into a top R&B studio) heard Peebles sing and offered her a contract. Peebles' debut disc, This Is Ann Peebles, appeared in 1969, and a series of singles culminated in Peebles' first Top 10 R&B hit, "Part Time Love" (a cover of a chitlin' circuit hit by Little Johnny Taylor, not to be confused with Johnnie Taylor). This prompted a recycling of Peebles' first album under the title Part Time Love.
Song's Transcendent Moment
"I'm gonna tear your playhouse down,
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